A man woke to find himself in a room, slumped against the middle of the wall. He knew that he should have some memory about how he got there, that he should have memories at all, but he couldn’t seem to bring any to mind. When he tried to recall, he only felt a sense of sending queries into the empty depths of his mind, with not a trace of response, residue, or reflection. It was as if he had been hollowed out.
With his slow recognition that he wouldn’t be able to recall anything about his history, his distress was replaced by an interest in the room in his surroundings. On a table in the center of the room there sat a rotary phone. Although unaware of the current year or era from whence the phone came, he had the sense that it originated from a bygone era. Where he expected to find concrete information about the world around him were vague feelings, intuitions.
Behind the phone there was a window with the shades drawn down, sunlight peaking between the blinds. The man felt a sense of panic rise within him when he thought of what he might find if he opened the blinds. He put this thought out of his mind and continued to explore the room with his eyes.
In a corner across from him he saw a small pile of dirt.
The man had not yet dared to move anything but his eyes. He felt some need to collect his thoughts before he made any movement. But what was there to collect? Without his past, all he had was some small understanding about the objects in the room with him, the barest facts about them. The phone could be used to call people, and people could call him. He shuddered at the thought.
The man sat for what felt like hours, thinking the same thoughts until they began to drive him mad. That’s it, he thought, I can’t just keep sitting here, or I’ll lose what precious little mind I have. So he stood up, half expecting the world to come crashing down around him as he raised himself up. He was surprised how good it felt to be on his feet, his body sighing of relief after his period of immobility.
Now what? he thought. What else was there to do but take a closer look at the anthill? His thoughts of the phone produced an anxiousness within him–would someone be calling him? Was someone impatiently waiting for his call? There was no way he would dare approach the window.
As he knelt down next to the anthill, he was surprised to notice that it really was an anthill. How did these ants find their way into such an empty, sterile room? With nothing else in the room with which to busy himself, he decided to lay on his stomach and observe them as they went about their work.
The first thing the man noticed was that the ants don’t stray far from the hill. They only moved around near the entrance to the structure, entering and exiting but never leaving the mound of sand that makes up their small palace. Wow! They seem to have such a strong sense of themselves, as if they had been assigned their tasks by some divine being, some ant in the sky. The contrast between the man’s and ant’s position felt to the man quite stark. The recognition of this fact caused the man’s feelings of solitude and emptiness to swell. The ants have no awareness, no care about the man hovering above them. He sensed they had no regard for his internal state, nor the admiration he had for them. The man imagined that even if they had, it wouldn’t have made any difference to them. They’d have laughed it off as some inane observation of an obvious fact; Yes, we have a clear sense of our task and purpose, but this is no great wisdom. Now, let’s get back to work.
Eventually, the man decided that maybe he could satisfy himself with the work of the ants, the lack of viable alternatives leaving him little choice. Putting himself to work would help him put the phone, the window, and his general sense of hollowness out of mind. So he began to pick up the tiny stones as soon as the ants left the entrance of the hill and place them in whatever position he thought best, inspired by the work he had been watching them do over his hours of observation. The ants were perpetually confused by this theft of their burden, but with nothing to carry, they quickly returned to their dwelling to find a new one to move.
The man noticed that the speed of construction was much increased thanks to his help, as the ants had less distance to travel, and the time that he saved them added up across hundreds of trips. He would sit in the corner of the room whenever the room got dark, as bereft of sleep as the ants. He often wished he could continue working, but there was not enough light to see what he was doing and he was afraid he might crush one of the ants by mistake.
But after days of this routine, he became tired. He realized that as much as he wished he could, he could never operate with the single-minded focus that the ants exhibited. As much as he would try to remind himself to focus on his task, his fellow workers serving as his ideal, his mind would inevitably find itself drifting to other things. And with no memories of his past, there was very little for his mind to drift to but the phone, the window, and the man’s place in all of this. He started to worry that maybe he had some purpose just like the ants, but that, unlike them, he failed to recognize and follow through with it.
What else could he be meant to do? He was worried it had something to do with the phone, that there was someone on the other end of the line disappointed that he had not yet called. He began to imagine the phone as a conscious entity all itself, sitting in silent judgment while the man moved pebble after pebble. Time compounded his fear, and he eventually avoided even glancing at the phone. He knew that it had no eyes, but he came to believe its power made this fact irrelevant.
Thinking of the window was an even worse alternative. He felt no assurance that there weren’t eyes beyond the blinds. What would someone think if they saw him? Would they look in the window, see him moving small pebbles around and laugh? Would they bring their friends to show them this strange exhibit? Maybe whoever was out there would be even worse than this. Maybe they would try to hurt him, or destroy his anthill.
Thoughts of this kind gave the man a second wind in his work. He found new ways to build up the anthill, adding towers around its periphery. He experimented with making small mazes that he would watch the ants explore while he took breaks from his work. The satisfaction this provided was limited by the fact that the ants would almost always find their way back to the entrance of the hill by climbing over the obstacles that he tried to place, but he was at least able to enjoy imagining what it might be like to be in the maze himself, attempting to find his way out through its twists and turns. He loved being able to create these patterns in the sand, something to look at besides the blank walls of the room.
Although the various ways of making his day-to-day routine more interesting contributed greatly to his ability to continue with his work, they could only ever delay his sense of boredom. As days and nights passed, creating the designs became less and less interesting. As his boredom increased, so did his inability to keep his thoughts off the phone and window. He frantically tried everything he could to make things more interesting, but there was only so much he could do with the tiny pebbles the ants brought up from under the crack in the floor.
One morning he awoke from his slumber and recognized that he could not bring himself to go back to making patterns in the sand. He knew there was no way he could force himself to do what he had done for weeks on end. He paced back and forth in the room for what felt like hours, thinking of what to do next. Could it be called thinking when so few options existed in his mind? It might better be described as an anxious reshuffling of the same few thoughts.
Finally, he stopped pacing to sit by the anthill. Perhaps sitting there and watching them calmly go about their work would bring some relief. Maybe they’ll even help me, give some advice about what to do. When the man thought this, he felt a flicker of anger flash across his mind. What used to appear to him as tranquility, a dutiful and peaceful march of the ants, now seemed a smug and careless activity. Were the ants grateful for all the work he had done for them? Of course they weren’t. What had he been thinking, to imagine that he was providing any meaningful value to the ants? He felt their lack of appreciation, and his resentment for them grew in proportion to his feeling of embarrassment.
At last, the man felt something like a snap in his mind. He knelt near the hill, reached down, and instead of picking up one of the ant’s pebbles like he had thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times before, he squeezed an ant between his fingers and held it to his face, the pebble it carried falling to the hill as it squirmed for its freedom. The man felt great satisfaction in seeing the ant frantically writhe between his fingers. No longer did the ant appear poised and purposeful.
The man watched for some time, until he realized that the ant’s squirming was just as automatic and purposeful as its activity of transporting pebbles. This realization enraged him. He had hoped that somehow the ant would have registered that it was being held at his mercy, that it was being punished. He somehow imagined that it would beg him for forgiveness. Instead it behaved as if it did not care what he did, and didn’t care what it had done.
The man cooled at the recognition that what he was doing was for himself alone. Resigned to the selfishness of his act, he reached for one of the ants legs. He would pull it off, and the rest of its legs, and all the legs of all the ants in the colony. If they could not appreciate his help, then they would at least fail to accomplish what he had spent so long to try to help them achieve. He would destroy what no longer provided any fulfillment.
He grasped one of the tiny legs between his thumb and forefinger and prepared to pull. But just as he grimaced in preparation for this mutilation, he heard a high, harsh sound. The man thought maybe the ant was finally admitting its wrongs and begging for mercy. But he realized it was coming from behind him. He immediately dropped the ant and spun his head around, eyes wide with fear.
The phone continued to ring as he stared, his body still frozen with terror below his turned head. Imagining someone must have known what he was doing, he felt a surge of embarrassment. All of his ideas about the phone must have been true after all, it must have been listening and aware, judging his every action, ready to announce his condemnation or absolution.
He knew now that he had failed, and wondered how he might have done better. What could he have done to gain the approval of the phone? He did not yet know what would become of him, but he was ready to face his punishment. It was difficult to imagine it being much worse than what he had suffered so far. He even felt a certain sense of relief, that things were about to finally change, that he’d no longer be stuck in this room with nothing to do.
The phone still rang as he processed all of this. Finally, he stood and walked over to the phone, placing his hand on the receiver as he had placed his fingers on the ants leg moments before. He yanked it up to his ear and stuttered:
“Hi there, is this Mr. Sanford?”
Surprised that the phone hadn’t immediately pronounced some judgment, or known exactly who he was and what his crimes were, he nonetheless concluded that he must be who they asked about. Who else might they have been meaning to reach at this phone?
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Wonderful. I’m Sarah Cranstead calling on behalf of Crawford and Sons tire service. I just wanted to let you know that we’re offering a 20% discount for you this month since we saw that your wife had her tires rotated around six months ago with us. We usually recommend that people rotate them every six months, so we like to offer a discount to help bring people back in.”
The man stood motionless with the phone up to his ear, unsure about how to respond to this bewildering onslaught of words.
“You’re telling me… So, this isn’t about the ant?”
“Sorry, what’s that? No, this is Sarah Cranstead calling on behalf of Crawford and Sons…”
The man heard her voice drifting up from the phone that he was already moving towards the receiver. He felt as if the ants had finally dug out the floor from under him and he was falling through it.
He turned to look at the window behind him, squinting at the light shining in between the blinds. It was the first time that he had been able to look at it without immediately averting his gaze.
He knew that he would no longer be able to withstand the tedium of the room, and the feeling of anticlimax and relief he felt at discovering that the phone did not contain or represent some omniscient or judgmental being led him to consider the fact that maybe what was outside the window wasn’t as fearsome as he had always imagined.
He walked to the window and took hold of the cord that he somehow knew would lift the blinds. Pausing for a moment to consider what he was about to do, he recognized that there was not much to ponder beyond the fact that there was nothing left in this little room to occupy him, and that the only potential for something new must lie beyond that window. He wasn’t willing to wait around for another pointless phone call, and he knew he could no longer be satisfied with his work for the ants.
He became aware that he now felt what he always imagined the ants felt when he watched them go about their work. He recognized that whatever he was meant to do could not be done in this room. The ants could be completely fulfilled by moving pebbles here and there, but the man could not. To face the unknown, to open the blinds and discover what lie beyond them, was what he had to do.
He pulled the cord and the blinds lifted.
After blinking away the overwhelming light, his eyes landed on various objects outside like predators on prey. He saw that he was in a valley, filled with trees and surrounded by tall mountains, as if he had been shrunk and placed within one of the structures that he had made for the ants. He suddenly felt a peculiar feeling in his face before recognizing it was a wide smile.
He opened the window, threw his legs over the windowsill, and made for the nearest mountain peak.